A year ago you could be fooled into thinking team mascots in the Elite Ice Hockey League had seen their day. With the possible exception of Clangus, Glasgow Clan’s enigmatic, and bizarrely athletic, bovine, mascot popularity seemed pretty low. From a Nottingham perspective, Paws would wander from block to block on game night, racing up the steps to get in some dance moves before the next play began, then trudge back down again five seconds later. There didn’t seem to be much motivation to engage with the crowd, who barely seemed interested in their giant headed club representatives.
Across the league, mascots were putting their heart, soul, and physical well-being into entertaining the hockey faithful, but not really getting much in return.
“l loved the idea of characters entertaining the family,” Clangus moos, when I chance upon a rare and very exclusive mascot gathering. “People will forget reality for a brief moment and get caught up in the fun and magic you bring them.” Clangus, a multi-team fan favourite (as the visiting Panthers fans who started a rousing chorus of ‘We love you Clangus, we do’ at the end of last season will testify) isn’t the only one who holds the magic of mascots in high regard.
Lightning Jack, Manchester Storm’s resident crowd pleaser, admits that ‘making a kid’s day’ is one of the best things about the job. Sometimes the little ones aren’t so sure about these strange looking (particularly in Jack’s case) beings, but to get a high five or a fist bump makes is all worthwhile.
I wondered how you became a mascot, feeling like this might involve special training or some kind of X-Men worthy genetics, and asked Coventry Blaze’s fire breather, Scorch, how he got into the game. It turns out he was already part of the Sky Dome team, on 50/50 duty, when his services were called on at the last minute. Like his fellow mascots, Scorch rates the interaction with the fans, both home and away, highly and enjoys the banter he and the other mascots have online.
Fife Flyers’ tam o’ shanter wearing geriatric, Geordie Munro, despite being eighty years young, agrees that “in previous years I don’t think anyone has bothered, but now they love mascots, that’s why I continuously do it.”
The role of mascot was thrown into sharp focus, unexpectedly, in the build-up to Playoff Finals Weekend at the end of the 2017-18 season. As the Elite League announced the booking of NHL personality; Cameron Hughes – a larger than life individual and self-christened ‘crowd igniter’.
Fans were used to the team mascots coming together to entertain the league collective, who was this guy? More importantly, where were the mascots?
Chaos ensued, resulting in the cancellation of Cameron’s appearance due to inappropriate threats against him on social media from an unruly contingent of fans. Clubs were bombarded with demands to know where their mascots were, would they be attending?
Official supporter’s clubs coordinated hotel reservations, some were offered rooms in local fan’s homes, others managed to be on two sides of the Atlantic at once! The message in the final run up to POFW was loud and clear; the mascots were part of the team and they were loved.
In a way Geordie’s right about the increased popularity because it’s clear that, since playoff’s and the ‘dance off strike’ in support of ‘Justice for Mascots’, team mascots have blasted from the sidelines to become online personalities in their own right. Banter between club personalities is commonplace on game days, as the mascot accounts cheerfully antagonise each other in a way the clubs themselves wouldn’t really get away with. Scorch will be branded a crocodile, Lightning Jack a vampire, while they both shoot back jibes at Paws for looking like a bear.
But it’s not all fun and games being a mascot, there are considerable risks when dealing with the ticket buying public. I ask if there’s a downside to being out there, for the world to interact with, and the responses were surprising.
For starters, it seems that the lines for decency and dignity are more difficult to define, when fans are faced with a costumed character. Several mascots admit that being grabbed and groped, in what appears to be an attempt to guess their gender, is a regular occurrence.
“I’ve had a bruised windpipe, hurt ribs, and been groped in areas that would usually involve the police”, says one. In addition to unwanted harassment are attempts to ‘reveal’ their identity, by pulling at their heads or, as one mascot experienced, being kicked in the back of the head, to try and knock it off.
At Playoff Finals Weekend, whilst exhausted and returning to the locker room, Nottingham Panthers’ Paws was pinned against the wall of the lift and dry humped by a chap who could have benefited from a couple of soft drinks. Geordie wears a full-face helmet beneath his boyish good looks, to avoid another broken nose.
Aside from unpleasant fan engagement, the life of a mascot isn’t without health impacts. “It is such a physically demanding role. I receive physio every month and have permanent neck issues due to the weight of my head,” one of my companions explains. Plus, there’s the added barrier of trying to be as energetic as possible within the constraints of size 40 feet or a snout that sticks out a metre. “I fell down the stairs and chipped my ankle bone once,” Scorch says, and when you watch Paws sprint up and down the heights of the Motorpoint Arena, you have to wonder how they’re not constantly in and out of A&E.
Perhaps the best, and most shocking, example of the level of commitment held by these unpaid entertainers, happened at a Coventry vs Sheffield bout in 2017. During an interval game of bubble ball, Scorch was caught unawares from behind, smashing nose first into the ice and injuring his back. Whilst being stretchered away, he asked paramedics to conceal his face, maintaining the anonymity which falls in the mascot code. EIHL fans were relieved to see him make a speedy recovery, but the incident highlights the integrity each mascot brings to the role and the extent to which they’re willing to protect the magic.
Despite the negatives, EIHL mascots are confidently positive about the future of mascots. I ask if they felt that mascots had a place in the future of the league. We’re a key part of the organisation,” Lightning Jack beams, eyebrows arching to terrifying proportions, “we set the tone and create a fun atmosphere” Clangus agrees, “British hockey fans are very protective of us, they’re not willing to be told who they’ll be entertained by – that’s why there was such a backlash to Cameron coming over. Playoffs is an organic weekend and we create our own fun. It’s very rare in sport to have so many teams’ fans in the same place, sharing something together, and the mascots really have a laugh.
This outlook is mirrored by the mascots as a whole. Paws adds, “Ice hockey is a family sport and I think mascots play a huge part in encouraging the next generation to attend games,” and their obvious commitment to their role is inspiring. Mascots love their job, within their community they all get along and support each other – even Big Paws (Nottingham Panther’s giant inflatable) and are very proud of what they do. Most of them haven’t watched a full home game in a long time, their bodies are broken, their social lives are non-existent, and they put up with behaviour most of us wouldn’t stand for half of.
As British ice hockey continues its journey into a digital age, mascots are showing themselves to be an incredible untapped resource for fan engagement, and the way in which clubs are embracing this shows that these guys are going to be around for a long time to come.